Linda Seger created and defined the career of script consultant in 1981. She is the most prolific author in the area of screenwriting. Her ten books remain staples for writers and many universities use them as textbooks in screenwriting classes. Linda is best known for the title MAKING A GOOD SCRIPT GREAT. She has consulted on over 2,000 scripts including over fifty produced feature films and over thirty-five produced television projects. She has given seminars in over thirty countries around the world. Linda has earned three MA degrees and a Th.D. including one in drama and one in Religion and the Arts. She lives in Cascade, CO with her husband Peter.
John Rainey worked his way through college in multiple jobs, and graduated with a degree in acting & directing. He received a Fellowship to Cornell University as a directing candidate in the MFA program, worked professionally as a stage director in various summer stock & community productions, and taught piano. He started writing screenplays in 1988, took Ken Rotcop’s workshop from 1990 – 1994, and Ken started John analyzing and consulting with screenwriters. In 2003 Creative Screenwriting rated him as Best Screenplay Analyst and he's worked extensively on screenwriting assignments ever since while consulting with writers. He has had three scripts produced and has had 12 more optioned. He's written SCREENWRITING STYLE THAT SIZZLES before co-writing with Linda on this book.
Order Linda & John's book, YOU TALKIN' TO ME? HOW TO WRITE GREAT DIALOGUE here.
Dave Watson: First, congratulations on a wonderful book. How did this come about?
Linda Seger: I wanted to write a book on dialogue for many years but realized I needed a screenwriter as a co-author to write this book. So, I waited for the right person to come along. In 2012, John and I met on a project where he was the screenwriter, I was the script consultant, and the producer was from Colombia and came to Colorado for eight days.
We worked well together, and we were well matched. We both had Masters degrees in Drama and we had both directed plays and acted in plays and both had worked in theater. And we had both been script consultants for many years. I approached Michael Wiese Productions years ago about this book, and we were turned down, and then I re-approached him and asked if it was a “firm non-offer.” They looked again at the proposal and this time they said ”Yes” to the project.
DW: Writers such as Harold Pinter have distinct ways of communicating through dialogue. Who working today stands out as writers of great, distinctive dialogue?
John Rainey: Pinter got his style from Samuel Beckett, who was a research assistant to James Joyce who used all these words. Beckett, wanting to establish himself, decided to do the opposite – become a minimalist with few words, using pauses and silence.
LS: There are also other writers, such as Paddy Chayefsky who go on and on - lots and lots of words. We’re both musicians and we see how much of dialogue is a sense of sound and rhythm, like iambic pentameter, assonance, and alliteration, like you find in Shakespeare. John wrote the first draft of our chapter on poetic devices - and knew all about those devices that most of us hadn’t thought about for years. But adding a bit of rhythm does wonders for dialogue!
JR: That’s developed in Chapter Ten. Shakespeare was a master at controlling actors by giving half a line of three beats to one actor, and the other two beats to another actor, which also forces them to pick up their cues. We use the wooing scene from Taming of the Shrew as one of the examples in that chapter.
LS: We have also added case studies at the end of every chapter to show how to rewrite dialogue to make it better. We chose a scene from a client’s script, with permission, of course, that exemplifies the points we wish to make in the chapter. I write consulting notes. John does a rewrite to show possible fixes. This is what makes this book on dialogue uniquely different from other books.
DW: You also discuss dialogue as establishing worlds. Is this subconscious?
LS: It’s actually very conscious. People need to know the world they’re in, and the worlds will have different rhythms and vocabulary and even different dialects and accents that the writer needs to at least suggest. If you’re dealing with small towns, you need to know what a small town is like. Look at military films or police films or medical series - the writer needs to know those worlds. Look at Sideways. The writers clearly knew about the world of wine.
JR: And that world has specific vocabulary and cadences. The writer needs to be aware of how the actor will say the line. It’s why I insist writers take acting classes, so that they know what actors go through and what words will flow “trippingly over the tongue” as Shakespeare says. We encourage writers to read their lines out loud to you make sure they flow. You also have to know what you want to say, to balance the language with the visual elements. You need to be very conscious about what you are doing.
LS: Do your research if necessary. And rewrite a lot! The difference between professional writers and amateurs is that professionals work harder.
DW: You also discuss dialogue as exploring conflict. How is this done in film? Often it appears that dialogue runs counter to and complements action.
JR: You have to really know what the conflict is in a story and get inside characters. Just as there is a thesis, you need to equally develop its antithesis, and explore those two points of view. Then you let that conflict come out and be expressed by the characters. To make your point, you weigh the side of the argument you agree with and the climax of the story presents the synthesis.
LS: And be willing to explore the gray areas in between the thesis and antithesis. In film, conflict has to be externalized.
JR: Dialogue is a refined action. Look at the riots going on around the country. When dialogue is not manifesting the desired results… ultimately, an internal struggle manifests itself as an external conflict.
DW: So in a way, when we in the audience go to a movie, we are looking for conflict. We’re part of it and yet bystanders.
JR: Yet, when well-written, we react viscerally, hopefully in a way that awakens us to a larger truth.
LS: The character has to be willing to engage with the situation and commit to resolving the problem that has been introduced at the beginning. The character is on a Mission, and has to say “yes” to signing up for what will be a challenge. I’m not a fan of boxing movies, but the second turning point in Rocky is so terrific because he re-commits to trying - knowing he might not succeed.
DW: And it becomes all the more poignant when he loses. We admire him because he tried. Your book also discusses how dialogue is written differently for animals, critters, and non-human characters. This appears challenging as people will feel and hear sub-par dialogue in, say, animation. Is this harder than for live action? Why?
LS: Yes. Much harder, but think of Babe, with a talking pig. In that film they capture Babe’s sweet sound, and the sound of a cat, with a seductive purring voice. The sheep call to M-a-a-a with a baa-ing sound. There are so many times where writers don’t think it through when creating voices for animals and critters. Dialogue is not just words but vocalization. A horse neighs. A dog barks and woofs and growls. So, we encourage writers to think of dialogue as sounds, not just words.
DW: Finally, what are your favorite cinematic moments?
JR: For me it’s Lawrence of Arabia. It’s when Lawrence has donned Arabian dress and must cross the Sinai desert. He makes the journey and he reaches the shore of the Suez Canal. He spots an English soldier riding a motorcycle across the way. The motorcyclist calls out, “Who are you?” And the shot of Lawrence’s dazed face is amazing. Here’s a guy who just conquered the Middle East but he has no sense of personal identity.
Clip: Lawrence of Arabia
DW: It’s very profound and makes sense on multiple levels. Linda?
LS: There’s a very dialogue-rich scene when one character, Maya, asks Miles, “Why are you so into Pinot Noir?” He responds, “It’s fragile, temperamental,” and he then waxes eloquent about pinot, but on the subtextual level, he’s really talking about himself. It’s like a soliloquy.
Dave Watson, founder and editor of Movies Matter, is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.